Pin It

Discussions at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, of icy volcanism on Ceres have led to speculation that the dwarf planet may potentially be habitable. Although Ceres does not have an atmosphere, life might exist in a subsurface ocean, similar to those thought to be on Jupiter's Europa or Saturn's Enceladus.

"Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet," said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at JPL. "Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, NASA's Dawn calls Ceres, home."

NASA's Dawn mission would be impossible without its futuristic, hyper-efficient ion propulsion system. In addition to being the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, Dawn also has the distinction of being the first mission to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. From 2011 to 2012, the spacecraft explored the giant asteroid Vesta, delivering new insights and thousands of images from that distant world. Ceres and Vesta are the two most massive residents of our solar system's main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The most recent images received from the spacecraft, taken on March 1, show Ceres as a crescent, mostly in shadow because the spacecraft's trajectory put it on a side of Ceres that faces away from the sun until mid-April. When Dawn emerges from Ceres' dark side, it will deliver ever-sharper images as it spirals to lower orbits around the planet.

To read more, click here.